Guns for Ulster

belfast somme

Initially the Volunteers drilled with wooden batons, (much to the amusement of the British press), but a local carpentry firm stepped in and offered to supply wooden replica rifles at a cost of one shilling and eight pence each for pitch pine, and one shilling and sixpence for spruce. Now in areas such as Sandy Row, Newtownards Road and the Shankill, a common sight each evening was the local Company of Volunteers, as they went about their training and designated duties, ‘armed to the teeth’ with their wooden rifles. It was at this juncture that Charles Craig, (brother of James Craig), went on record as saying, “Whilst Ulstermen should do their best to educate the electorate, as an argument, £10,000 spent on rifles would be a thousand times stronger than the same amount spent on speeches or pamphlets”.

uvf gun running
A UVF gun-runner transporting arms from Birmingham to Ulster in spring 1913

Small scale gun-smuggling was already going on before 1914. Guns came in on fishing boats to ports such as Kilkeel and were hidden in boxes of herring. However the number of guns getting through was inadequate to the needs of the volunteers, so the go ahead was given to a Belfast volunteer, Frederick Hugh Crawford who had formerly been an officer in the British army and had been involved in the volunteer movement since 1911, to buy 20,000 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition from a German by the name of Bruno Sppiro who Crawford had built up contacts with in Hamburg and ship them back to Ulster en masse to land at some secret night time rendezvous.
Naturally the cost of of such a vast amount of weaponry as anticipated demanded a healthy bank balance, but in those glorious days Ulster had many numerous high-profile friends who were only too willing to meet the expenses required by Carson and the Volunteers. Men like Rudyard Kipling, Admiral of the fleet Sir E. Seymour, Waldorf Astor and Viscount Halifax to name but a few.
The Gun running was planned secretly and scrupulously, especially now that a watch was being kept on key British ports, following the discovery that gun running had become standard practice throughout Ulster.
The operation code named ‘Lion’ on the night of the Friday 24 April 1914, there was to be a test mobilisation of the UVF under cover of which the Co. Antrim regiment was to take over the Port of Larne whilst the ‘Clyde Valley’ docked there and unloaded. The motor corps of various UVF units would be waiting with engines turning to collect their parcels of guns and deliver them to secret locations in their home areas.
In an attempt to draw attention away from the Larne operation, volunteers were to march a contingent to the docks where the SS Balmerino would arrive in what would be a ‘decoy run’. A great effort was made to frustrate the custom authorities in their attempts to search the vessel, adding to the suspicion that she contained arms for the waiting volunteers.
In Larne the UVF took control under the cover of darkness all went according to plan as column after column of vehicles approached the port past checkpoint after checkpoint As the Clyde Valley pulled into the harbour the headlights of 500 motor vehicles were flaring into the Co Antrim town. Men from local Battalions had been placed at key points along the highways to give drivers unfamiliar with the roads with reserve supplies of petrol and tools for possible breakdowns. As the drivers left Larne with their clandestine cargo two local ships were located with guns for Belfast and Donaghadee and soon the Co.Down coast where a further, smaller consignment of guns and ammunition was unloaded. By 7.30, the last cars were leaving Bangor Pier with their cargo and at Donaghadee and Belfast the guns had also been quietly shipped ashore. The Clyde Valley gun-running operation had been a success.

clyde valley
The Gallant Clyde Valley

The guns that had been shipped in were mainly German Mauser Austrian Mannlicher rifles and the majority went to Belfast, Antrim and Down with some to Derry and Tyrone. There were also several thousand Italian made Vetterli guns which were distributed to Armagh, Fermanagh and Monaghan.
Unionists in Britain, particularly the Union Defence League and others promoting the British Covenant, were impressed by the gun-running operation. The success of the episode, despite all odds, was seen as a sign of Gods hand guiding the Ulster Protestants. Men such as Crawford believed strongly in the rightness of their cause :
‘I felt my responsibilities very heavily, but I believed that our cause was just and I believed in God Almighty. We were going to defend our faith and Liberty”. It was with this sense of achievement that the men of the UVF were to enter the British army and eventually, the gun and shell fire of the Somme. They had had the verdict of military men that they could compare with any army in Europe, in their organisation and strategy, and now hey had ‘evidence’ that God was on their side.

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